Scientific fundamentalism

Scientific fundamentalism is a section of the editorial from the November 2013 issue of WDDTY

So why have we upset Sense About Science so much? There is, of course, the most obvious reason: our information threatens the revenues of some of its benefactors, most notably the pharmaceutical industry.

False. And obviously so. Even leaving aside the bogus claim Sense About Science is “pharma funded”, SAS is a major promoter of the All Trials initiative – all trials registered, all results published. This would have prevented the abuses that led to Vioxx, for example, and is utterly incompatible with the claim that SAS is either pro-pharma, or supporting the agenda of the pharmaceutical companies.

Despite all the grandstanding, the pink ribbons and the attempts to cloak cancer treatment in the weighty mantle of science, the fact remains that the vast majority of modern medicine’s arsenal against cancer doesn’t work – WDDTY editorial

5-year cancer survival rates, stated by WDDTY to be 12%, are in fact over 50%.

But, fundamentally, Singh and his cohorts believe we are ‘anti-science’ and pedalling unproven alternatives that could harm instead of heal.

Why would they believe that? Unless, of course, they’ve been reading your maunderings on vaccines, HIV, homeopathy, Gardasil

It’s important here to make a distinction between science—the openminded pursuit of truth without fear or favour—and scientism, a solidified set of beliefs around which academics, industries and professions are framed.

ScientismW is a word most commonly encountered among creationists, who use it as a catch-all pejorative for those who accept the scientific consensus on evolution, and as a way of attempting to assert parity of esteem for their beliefs and the conclusions of scientific investigation. It may be defined thus:

The view that the characteristic inductive methods of the natural sciences are the only source of genuine factual knowledge and, in particular, that they alone can yield true knowledge about man and society.

It is a term used by philosophers such as Karl PopperW to describe the application of the scientific method and scientific reductionism outside the scope of natural empirical inquiry. In other words, to insist that science be used to investigate the tenets of a religion, might be called scientism.

It does not cover the case of claims which are empirically testable, including claims to treat or cure disease.

A claim that meditation leads to higher consciousness might be challenged scientifically on the basis that the definition of “higher consciousness” is itself based on the assumption that meditation leads there, and that this is therefore unscientific. That might be counted as scientism.

A claim that apricot kernels cure cancer is a straightforward testable claim which lies squarely within the framework of scientific inquiry, and to test it using the scientific method is science, not scientism.

The resistance we’ve experienced has more to do with the latter, and it is this that Sense About Science seeks to protect.

This is false. It is clear from the analysis on this website and elsewhere that much of what you say is presented as scientific fact, is testable within the scientific method, and is provably false. Attempting to redefine medicinal claims as philosophical beliefs and thus outside the scope of rational scientific inquiry is a disingenuous attempt to build an escape hatch. The claims you make rest solidly within the legitimate fields of scientific inquiry, and can, should and indeed must be tested using the scientific method, being not just the best but the only way consistently proven to reliably separate truth from falsehood in this area.

This seems clear from the way the scientism of medicine greets any discovery, breakthrough or possibility that questions or threatens the current medical paradigm—by dismissing such ideas out of hand as ‘quackery’, even when they are the work of eminent scientists at prestigious institutions such as Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge. These are the studies we report on, as anyone who reads our magazine well knows.

Science greets every single discovery identically: “prove it”.

Science does not take any claim on the authority of the claimant, however eminent. It especially does not cling to a claim made by an eminent man when the evidence clearly shows it to be wrong. Einstein rejected quantum statistical mechanics because he said “my God does not play dice with the universe”. He was wrong. Einstein in turn showed Newton to be wrong about light and relativity.

WDDTY, on the other hand, does subscribe to the fallacious argument from authorityW. The work of Jacques BenvenisteW is asserted as justification for homeopathy, even though it is refuted. The writing of an anti-vaccinationist whose testimony was described by a court judge as “junk science” is used to support outrageously false assertions about MMR.

Sense About Science applies scientific inquiry, not scientism. WDDTY applies anti-scientism, not science. The only claims which WDDTY seems to question at all are those which have robust scientific support, and in rejecting them they apply an entirely credulous standard to any counter-claim – a disparity of critical judgment that results in consistently biased content.

Medicine and indeed most of science is becoming ever more fundamentalist, with grant money paid only to those who confirm the orthodox point of view.

No evidence is presented for this view, and it runs counter to the changing balance of medical research funding away from governments and towards independent charitable trusts.

Marshall and Warren were awarded the Nobel prize for completely overturning the long-standing belief that peptic ulcers were caused by stress.

That’s why chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery have remained the only treatments of choice for cancer for so many decades.

No, that’s because they were the only things we could be confident actually worked. It’s changing as novel therapies are being developed, and there has been a massive focus on prevention (totally inconsistent with the idea that the health agenda is controlled by the “cancer industry” or any other big business; in fact Big Tobacco is the biggest loser in this effort).

What medicine does not do is to accept every new “miracle cure” claim and fork over wads of cash to someone with a blinding revelation and no credible scientific evidence. This is by design. It applies to all treatments, mainstream or not – and the strident demands for tamoxifenW, tamifluW and laetrileW are indistinguishable in character and the medical response identical in every case: bring better evidence. As is the pernicious effect of health journalists in stoking controversy, shedding more heat than light and generally muddying the waters.

For years, medical fundamentalism has only embraced the pharmaceutical model. Drug companies sponsor medical schools, pay for what is often manipulated research and reward doctors willing to prescribe their products with gifts and trips abroad to exotic locations.

This is categorically false. It denies the existence of surgery, preventive medicine, public health generally, valid and widespread complementary therapies such as diet and physiotherapy.

The jollies are largely a thing of the past. Many GP surgeries won’t even see drug reps any more.

For an excellent discussion of the influence of drug reps and how it has declined, read Bad PharmaW by Ben Goldacre. You might also enjoy Bad ScienceW by the same author, which exposes bad science in all kinds of areas, from pharmaceuticals to vitamin peddlers.

Medicine has largely become a drug delivery system. Drugs constitute a one-size-fits-all model, whereas every human being is unique. Drugs that work on me may not work on you and vice versa; drugs can’t be made smart enough to, say, slot tab A into slot B because humans are holistic.

This is categorically false. An enormous amount of work is going into genetic typing and other objective diagnostics that will more accurately target drug delivery, and prevention remains the gold standard, with efforts to eradicate poliomyelitis leading the field.

Two individuals have identical symptoms. A test identifies that one has coeliac, the other Crohn’s. One is managed by diet alone, the other by a drug chosen against blood tests that rule out some treatments and rule in others.

This is holistic medicine.

The claim to treat the “whole person” with nonsensical treatments, one size fits all prescriptions for large amounts of supplements and vitamins (i.e. drugs), and the application of religious belief in place of empirical evidence and self-examination, is characteristic of the supplements, complementary and alternative medicine (SCAM) industry, not medicine.

And make no mistake: despite its beads and kaftan image, this is a multi-billion-dollar industry with well-funded lobbyists busily engaged in creating a regulatory regime that drug companies can only envy. No need to provide safety or efficacy, brand it a food supplement and you’re good, let Dr. Oz and Mercola make your marketing claims and advertise on an availability basis.

WDDTY seems to see no problem with this industrialised exploitation. But then, as they are so fond of saying, follow the money. These are WDDTY’s advertisers, after all.

As new evidence in biology is beginning to show, the systems of the body interact as a complex, dynamic and highly individualistic whole. Biochemical individuality creates mayhem with drug trials, which are designed to look for common results in everyone—one reason their results are so often manipulated, massaged or even made up. The Scientific-Ethical Committee for Copenhagen and Frederiksberg Municipalities, which carried out a review between 1994 and 1995 (published in PLoS Med 4(1): e19), estimated that as much as 75 per cent of a sampling of industry-sponsored studies—and possibly up to 91 per cent—were ghostwritten manuscripts to achieve the ‘right ‘result for their corporate sponsors.

Why so late to the party, Lynne? We knew about this decades ago, from Ben Goldacre. I notice you don’t cite Bad ScienceW, his very readable book and popular on abuse of science in health claims. You should recommend it!

And who ever said that the human body was simple? Why on earth do you think clinical trials exist n the first place?

And in what way does manipulation of the science by vested interests justify jettisoning science altogether and instead uncritically accepting the claims of vested interests?

Richard Smith, former editor of the British Medical Journal, wrote a foreword to a newly published book entitled Deadly Medicines and Organised Crime: How Big Pharma has Corrupted Healthcare by Peter Gøtzsche, head of the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Denmark (Radcliffe Publishing Ltd). In the book, Smith says that Gøtzsche produces detailed evidence to support his case that Big Pharma is guilty of all the offenses of organized crime, from extortion and fraud, to bribery, embezzlement, and political corruption.

Yes. Isn’t it amazing how the scientists and medical establishment figures you assert are entirely uncritical of “big pharma” turn out to be its most trenchant and effective critics?

When it isn’t possible to put a positive spin on the data, the research is often buried so it never sees the light of day, as happened with the painkiller Vioxx, held responsible for the deaths of 60,000 people before it was taken off the market.

We know. That’s why AllTrialsW exists. Epidemiology discovered this. That’s science, to you.

All of this begs the question: Which is the more dangerous modality, the current order of treatment or the alternatives we report on?

It does indeed beg the question. But it does not invite it, because the answer is abundantly clear: the solution to abuse of science in medicine, is better science, not throwing science out of the window and going back to witchcraft.

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